As a young girl in Norway, in the late 1800s, Johanna Mickman used to gather a few fallen boughs from evergreen trees and shape them into a Christmas wreath.
After she and her husband immigrated to St. Paul, she resumed the hobby to bring holiday cheer in the 1930s. Her son, John Victor Mickman, one day removed the wreath and walked over to the affluent neighborhood along Summit Avenue and sold it to a gentleman for 75 cents, or about $14 in today’s dollars.
That allowed him to buy her a set of porcelain figurines for Christmas. She was stunned at the price he got for the wreath. Mother and son quickly gathered as many boughs as they could find and made more.
That is the root of Mickman Brothers, the Ham Lake-based nursery and landscaping firm that does some of its biggest business this time of year. John Victor’s son, John, now 69, and his younger brother, Chris, 62, will sell about 500,000 wreaths and related products this year.
Mickman Brothers, which sells products directly through retailers and nonprofit fundraisers, will post about $20 million this year in wholesale revenue. That makes it one of the nation’s largest wreath producers.
The Mickman brothers, who wear jeans and work shirts most days, are paying back some of their good fortune.
A balsam fir tree will regenerate within three to five years after boughs of up to 36 inches long are trimmed.
In 2007, the Mickmans, concerned about declining woodlands, decided they would fund the planting, in state or federal forests, of one tree for every wreath delivered directly to a customer. That’s 75,000-plus a year. They expect to hit 1 million trees planted by 2021. Mickman said the cost is up to $20,000 annually.
“I’m a believer in climate change,” John Mickman said. “I want to be part of the solution.”
Mickman Brothers has expanded its Ham Lake facilities and overhauled the buildings, including the addition of ultraefficient LED lighting. Mickman is part of the Environmental Protection Agency’s WaterSense conservation program that encourages the most efficient irrigation systems, which may cost more up front but save over time.
Its landscape crews try to interest customers in permeable pavers that avoid water runoff.
Mickman recommends low-maintenance, pollinator-friendly Minnesota-plant gardens, and much of its waste is used for mulch or otherwise.
In Ham Lake and St. Francis, Mickman raises trees on 61 acres and has a 30,000-square-foot freezer to keep wreaths cold.
Employment hovers under 75 during the winter months and grows to about 130 during spring planting season through the fall. Another 300 work on contract October through December to harvest, make, deliver and ship wreaths and other items.
“There’s no other way to do it than make a wreath by hand,” John Mickman said. “To make a wreath you need to cut the tips of the long branches. It takes 12 to 18 cuts to make a hand bundle that gets fitted into the [wire] hoop.”
About half the holiday wreaths are sold in Minnesota. A full-size wreath sells at retail for about $35.
John Mickman, a Fridley High graduate, earned a business degree from the University of Minnesota in 1972. He eschewed suit-and-tie jobs.
He had $100 after graduation when he started hitchhiking west. He ended up in Kodiak, Alaska, where he signed on with a fishing boat.
He made a small fortune, earning up to $60,000 a season. He also survived some close calls over his decade at sea. And he witnessed areas depleted by commercial boats.
Mickman moved his young family back to the Twin Cities in 1977 and helped Chris start Mickman Brothers.
Their father served in World War II, then earned an aeronautical degree and worked at Honeywell. He supplemented his income each fall by making wreaths, as he and his mother had done since the Depression. John and Chris were the labor for years growing up. The brothers added that 14,000-a-year wreath business to their own in 1997.
A big part of the Mickman Brothers wreath business is through churches and nonprofit groups that buy the wreaths at wholesale to finance their activities with holiday sales.
“We are one of their biggest accounts, selling over $30,000 a year from 18 Mickman items,” said Annemarie Hess, a longtime volunteer with Scout Troop 33 at Westminster Presbyterian Church in downtown Minneapolis. “They are fantastic to work with. Our least expensive is a $19 green swag and our most expensive is a $125 60-inch wreath.
“Mickman delivers all the wreaths to us on a Saturday in November. Each scout delivers what he has sold.”